Category: Fruits & Sweets

All manner of sweets including fruits, cakes, cookies, breads, tarts & pies

Diwali faral: Shankarpali

The blue glow of the gas flame cast as eerie flickering glow on my kitchen walls. It was a bright, crisp November morning but my kitchen is at the back of my apartment. It has no windows and only enjoys borrowed light from my living room unless I turn on the lamp overhead. There was no need for that to heat a cup of water for tea.

Stirring the chai in my cup. I contemplated what sweet should be made for Diwali, which has approached much too fast this year. (Weren’t we just celebrating Holi?) I had the savoury portion covered with the poha chivda I made earlier this week. I just needed on sweet thing to complete the picture. I didn’t really want to step out to the shops today. Looking around, I saw my AP flour jar and immediately knew it was going to be shankarpali. It takes some doing but the ingredient list is three things: flour, sugar and ghee.
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Minty Coconut Burfi with pistachios

The erstwhile cutest kid on the planet turned 18 this month. The year that marks adulthood. But to me, he’ll always be the kid who gave hugs on demand, loved Speed Racer and Winnie the Pooh, and waited for the moment I stepped out of the room to climb on top of my drafting table and add orange smiley faces, blue flowers and purple grass on my architecture school work sheets. Got to love a kid who leaves you smiley faces with oblivious equanimity, but it was only because he was so cute and cuddly (and because his other aunt had me in a death grip) that he survived.

This kid had a sweet tooth the size of Kentucky. His love of all things sweet has not waned at all through his teenage years. I love when he comes to visit as it gives me license to have honeyed somethings in the house all the time. I made him brownies when he was last here. And now, as Diwali is nearing, when I miss my family more than ever, I’m thinking of him and how much he loved the festival and was frightened by it in equal measure.

Every year at Diwali, mom made the traditional faral. This made our little guy very happy. One of the first things he learned to do a year after he was walking was make his way to the kitchen and pull on my mom’s pallu while asking for a laddoo or pedha. He’d insist on a piece for each hand and then scamper away to his toys. He talked to the toy dog and little bear and you could see he was torn between eating the sweets himself and trying to feed them to his toy partners. The toys never got to them though because, after much cajoling, he ended up handing at least one piece over to a hungry aunt. Then the firecrackers would start going off all around the neighbourhood. The loud ones scared him, and made him cry. That’s when more sweets would be produced to calm the fright. Yes, he made those festivals memorable.
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Rose and cardamom scented Truffle Brownies

Our garden is currently a study in schizophrenic behaviour. While it should be responding to autumn and preparing for a nice long sleep, it is frantic with activity.  The strawberry plant is turning out fruit like a plant possessed. The hibiscus has decided that now is the time to burst into riotous scarlet explosion. (I’m deeply thankful for this since no other flower reminds me of home more. We used to have several of these plants in constant bloom all around my building.) The Indian summer of this region has everything to do with this madness. The biggest surprise are the Gerbera daisies, which we thought had breathed their last gasp end of July. The plant had all but disappeared, but it then surprised us by bursting out in a brave show of health. It has begun throwing out several blooms a week.

The air is charged with a cold streak,  the kind that makes you reach for a jacket even though you look outside your window and see brilliant sunshine. Perhaps, it is because that sunshine is slow to show up and low in its bearings, its fiery gold reminiscent of early sunsets and late sun rises. Nevertheless it makes you want for the substantial things. The fresh fruits that were more than enough as dessert in their raw, unadorned form only recently simply won’t do now. I find myself reaching for the ghee or some spices to cook them into warm things. Those are the nature of dishes we’re starting to crave; the oozing unctousness of a spiced pie, the savoury headiness of a steaming bean stew, the joyous rich comfort of a perfect chocolate brownie.

I have a pan in my kitchen that I use specifically for brownies. It is a basic thing, made of cooking grade aluminium. We bought it on an impulse at a sale because of the fact that it came with a lid, making it a perfect cook-and-store utensil. This pan has proven its worth to me more than anything else in the kitchen. It has lost its sheen and has taken on scratches of careless cutting over the years, but it still bakes fantastic bread puddings and cakes. It excels at its primary purpose, rich brownies with a crisp-ish edge.
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Strawberry Ice-cream with thyme & lemon verbena

Blue cheese. Nutella. Lavender. Burrata. Habenero.

This could be a list of things I’m crazy about. What it is, is a list of things Amey dislikes, with a healthy dose of disdain thrown in for good measure.

Aside from his insidious proclivity to all things lime and my prodigious tendency to all things chilli, there not much my other half and I disagree about food-wise. Unless we get to this bunch of things. Then we get to how-on-earth-can-this-be-the-person-I-chose-to-marry territory.  The territory where one can have a polarized relationship about Nutella.

He’s a better eater than I am, despite his embargo on soft, fresh cheese and burn-your-tongue-off peppers. He eats all kinds of vegetables I won’t touch with a ten-foot pole – bitter gourd, horseradish, rajma – with a fair amount of gusto. He also respects the fact that you cooked for him and will most likely eat any of these ingredients if you invite us over for dinner. There are then these very rare times where he sticks his hands in his pockets, clamps his mouth shut and does the best impression I know of a two-year old discovering kale for the first time. Times when I’m trying to prove to him, with a piece of toast in one hand and a spoonful of Nutella in the other, just how irrational his not liking it is. I plead “But you like hazelnuts.” He agrees “Sure”. I further posit “…and you love chocolate”. and he’s all “What’s not to like?” Then I go for the jugular with “So this is chocolate and hazelnuts. Together. In one handy, dandy smooth, creamy spoonful”. At which he gets that glazed look in his eyes that he gets when I’m trying to get him to watch The Nine Lives of Chloe King and is all like “What’s your point?” At which juncture I stick the spoonful of Nutella in my mouth, spread his toast with peanut-butter and loathing, and settle down to a lonely lifetime of solitary Nutella love.

So all in all, his quasi-erratic food preferences  should have prepared me to his reaction to this ice-cream flavour I made up. If I’d thought it through, I would have inaugurated my brand-new ice-cream maker with some thing safe, like vanilla. But I was all “vanilla? How boring!” (I love vanilla. I was just caught up in new appliance high.) I’ve dreamed of my own ice-cream maker all my life. Ever since I saw the two guys lug this big barrel around on a bicycle with another barrel in it and rock salt and ice in between, set with a humongous crank that one of them industriously turned. It made the best strawberry ice-cream. I pleaded with my dad who was all “Where on earth do you see room for a giant barrel in this flat?” and my mom who said “I’ll move out and then you’ll have room for your ice-cream barrel”. I was eight. Like I’d have any problem making that choice. But I digress.

I had conviction that the first ice-cream I’d make when I finally got my mitts on an ice-cream maker of my very own would involve strawberries. It was the first ice-cream flavour I ever tasted. It was so good I didn’t stop to think it involved artificial flavouring. I didn’t care. I clung to the strawberry-is-my-favourite-ice-cream-flavour idea with a true limpet touch. A limpet with a plan.

The strawberries at the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market are some of the best you can find. The wonderful folk at Dirty Girl Produce (I love them) hooked me up with some of their A-grade stash. They would have been best just eaten by themselves, but they had a date with some sugar and a very cold bowl. In his very comprehensive book, How to cook everything Vegetarian, Mark Bittman has a lovely short chapter on ice-cream and how you can put together your own flavour combination by following some simple ratio rules. We had some lovely flowering thyme in the garden which I’d just picked and the colour was so gorgeous next to the strawberries. Without thinking much about it, I found myself tossing the thyme into a pot with some sugar, macerated strawberries and some lemon verbena leaves. A squeeze of orange juice to enhance the lovely tang in the strawberries and I found myself in possession of some delicious strawberry puree with a note of something in it that you couldn’t quite put your finger on. I thought it was heavenly. Making the ice-cream with it was so simple, I couldn’t believe we hadn’t owned an ice-cream maker any sooner. Amey was going to love this. I was sure. I was also wrong.

He had a couple of spoonfuls, put the spoon down carefully and told me I was taking my obsession with salt entirely too far and why on earth had I salted his ice-cream that he’d been looking forward to all day. Then he went looking for some Pringles, because by Yoda if he was going to eat salty foods then it would be stuff not pretending to be sweet. I cautiously tasted the ice-cream again. I tasted no salt. There was no salt in the recipe. No, I hadn’t mistaken the salt for sugar. I don’t get it. I loved it. A friend of mine who tried it loved it. All Amey tasted was salt. I wonder if it’s like that phenomenon where to some people cilantro tastes like soap.

Strawberry Ice-cream with Thyme and Lemon Verbena
Based on Mark Bittman’s method from How to cook everything Vegetarian.
Makes about 1 pint

For the puree:
Strawberries – 2 cups, washed, hulled and halved
Sugar – 3/4 cup
Thyme – 1 3″ sprig
Lemon Verbena – 5 large leaves
Orange – 1/2, juice of

For the ice-cream:
Milk – 1 cup (2%)
Cream – 1 cup
Strawberry puree – 1 cup
Eggs yolks – 5
Sugar – 1/3 cup

To make the puree:
– Toss the strawberry halves and sugar into a saucepan at medium heat.
– Pour in the juice of half an orange along with a cup of water.  Stir to dissolve the sugar. Bring to a boil.
– Turn the heat down when mixture reaches a boil and then add the thyme sprigs and lemon verbena leaves.
– Roughly mash in the strawberries against the side of the container, using a large fork or potato masher.
– Simmer until the liquid has slightly reduced and mixture has thickened about 25-30 minutes.
– Skim off the foam. Fish out the woody bit of the thyme sprig and the lemon verbena leaves.
– Pour into a jar and let cool to room temperature. (Will make more puree than you need for one batch of ice-cream)

To make the ice-cream:
– Pour the cream and milk into a saucepan and heat at medium-high, just bringing it to a boil, stirring occasionally. Move off heat.
– In a separate bowl, beat the yolks and sugar together until mixture is thickened and light yellow.
– Slowly add 1/2 cup of the warmed milk and cream mixture into the egg yolks, whisking continuously, to temper the yolks.
– Whisk the egg and milk mixture gently back into the rest of the hot milk.
– Cool mixture down to room temperature then place in the fridge for 30 minutes or so.
– Take out of the fridge and add in the berry puree. Stir to mix then follow your ice-cream machine’s instructions to make your ice-cream.

Cook’s notes:-
Mark Bittman instructs the use of 6 egg yolks and 1/2 cup of sugar for strawberry ice-cream. That just scared me but I didn’t want the ice-cream to be ruined (apparently it was anyway; my husband hated it) so I reduced those numbers slightly. I think I shouldn’t have. A bit more sugar may have gone some way in helping Amey’s palate.
I really don’t know what happened with this ice-cream. I love the honey-thyme ice-cream that Humphrey Slocombe makes and somewhere in the back of my mind that’s what I was thinking of while making this. Truly, I thought it was delicious. On a normal day, Amey loves strawberries. And thyme. And lemon verbena. Clearly, he has a problem with them together. Or he doesn’t like them cold. Or something. Wish I knew what it was. Then I could make a tweaked batch of this again. As of now, I have to wait for him to take a week’s trip somewhere. Or catch a cold. Either option will do. I get petty when my ice-cream is insulted.

Yogurt Cake with Candied Orange and Cardamom

What a mixed bag this summer has been so far! Days hitting the sweltering 90s have jostled around with days of rain. In May. And June! The synchronicity of warmth and rain reminds me of Bombay. Some days I wake up dreaming I’m back in India with our annual rainy season, something the denizens wait for in desperation to take the edge off the summer heat. Only in a place that experiences the monsoon would people understand and perpetuate the phrase “lovely gray day”.

It’s a start-and-stutter summer out here in the Bay area, which feels like winter and spring segued into a weird groundhog season. This makes it hard to decide how to dress for it, but I don’t quite mind that much. Sure, I love the bright golden sunlight and early morning warming rays of sun. I like summer for all that it brings: a rich plethora of colourful produce in the market, long walks on the beach to watch a rich orange sun set after 9 at night, ice cream cones licked in earnest to avoid drippage, little girls in sunny frocks followed by gamboling golden retrievers enjoying the sunshine, an impossibly blue sky set in an earthy brown landscape, embers flying out and dying into a star-strewn sky. But in truth, I hate heat. What I love most, more than anything about this city, is its mostly cool weather. When the sun turns all hot and terrible, the fog rolls in to soothe heat-stricken souls. I get to enjoy lovely gray days right here in San Francisco. Seeing the fog roll up into the Presidio off the coast is one of the prettiest sights in the world.

One of the perks of having such a summer is that while the rest of the northern hemisphere can’t be bothered with turning on the stove and would rather boil themselves before firing up the oven, I’m happy to do either. Baking a cake on a cool, foggy, summer day is just about the coziest thing you can do. You get additional cozy points if you find the cake you just made reflects this at-odds weather.

This gem-of-a-cake helps you score just that. It is sweet-and-spicy; a western dessert with an eastern twist. I’ve served it twice so far, once at a potluck and at another time as a planned ending to a very Indian meal, both times to stellar reviews. The tart citrus of orange, the sweetness of honey and the warmth and anise-like heat of cardamom amalgamate into a sensuous, sublime cake with gravity. It has a fine, moist (I’ve heard many have a problem with that word. I’m not one of them) crumb, a characteristic ensured by a generous dousing of orange infused syrup. There is no use of summer fruit and this is a deep winter warming spice, but just take a look at it. Did you ever see a cake that looked more capable of bringing sunshine to a table on a foggy day? The memory of this cake will stay with those who eat it. They love to figure out what’s in it. This is a cake you will be remembered for. In a good way. In an ‘oh-my-god-the-girl (or boy)-has-skillz’ kind of way.

Yogurt Cake with Candied Orange and Cardamom
Slightly adapted from Bon Appetit, June 2011
Makes 12 servings.

For the candied oranges and syrup:
Sugar – ¾ cup
Orange blossom honey – ¾ cup

Green cardamom pods – 3 tbsps, crushed
Orange – 1, sliced quite thin

For the cake:
Semolina flour – ½ cup
All-purpose flour – 1 cup

Baking powder – 1-½ tsp
Ground cardamom – 1 tsp
Baking soda – ¼ tsp

Salt – ½ tsp
Sugar – ½ cup, divided equally
Eggs – 3, seperated
Olive oil- ½ cup
Yoghurt – 2/3 cup
Grated orange zest – 2 tsp
Vanilla extract – 1 tsp

Pistachios – toasted, unsalted, a loose handful.

To make candied oranges:
– In a saucepan, combine the sugar, honey, cardamom pods and 2 -1/2 cups of water together and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar.
– Turn the heat down to medium low and add orange slices. Continue to simmer for about half an hour, turning the orange slices over midway.
– Line a tray with parchment paper and arrange orange slices on it.
– Strain the syrup to remove pods and seeds.

To make the cake:
– Pre-heat the oven to 350° F.
– Whisk together the two flours, baking powder, baking soda, cardamom powder and salt.
– In a separate bowl, beat ¼ cup of sugar with the olive oil for about a minute. Beat in yolks, than the flour mixture.
– Add the add the yogurt and orange zest.
– In another bowl, beat the eggs whites with clean beaters until they form soft peaks. Gradually beat in the sugar and vanilla, beating until    firm peaks form.
– Fold half the egg whites into the batter, then the other half, both times until just folded in.
– Pour into a 9” cake or spring form pan.
– Bake until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, for about 25 minutes.
– Once out of the oven, pierce the cake all over the top  and drizzle a cup of the syrup on to it. When that is absorbed, add another cup.
– Once the cake has cooled, take it out of the pan.  Arrange the orange slices on the cake. Sprinkle pistachios over.
– Cut into wedges and serve.

Cook’s notes:-
I’ve adjusted sugar quantities slightly the second time around and found it didn’t make too much of a difference. The recipe asks for you to serve the cake with an additional dose of  syrup, but I didn’t think it needed it. The cake was great right out of the pan. The candied orange keeps its lovely citrus tang, great just by itself but dynamite on this cake. The candied orange slices can be made a day ahead of time. Just cover the tray with cling wrap and place in fridge. Do the same with the syrup. Warm the syrup slightly before pouring onto cake.
Often I’ve wanted to end Indian meals with a non-Indian dessert that tied it all together somehow. I was never quite happy with things I tried, until now. This recipe is a keeper.
I’ve added powdered cardamom where it asks for whole, skipped steps or mixed ‘em up. The cake still turned out fine. People really love it, and you. Try it, you won’t be sorry!